Thursday, 14 November 2019

Opposition to urban sprawl is as much about snobbery as self-interest

The standard narrative about urban containment - the "green belt" as we call it in England - is that is persists because of the economic self-interests of homeowners in communities at the margins of urban conurbations. These are the NIMBYs and they have driven the policy of containment to the extent that large, growing cities - San Francisco, London, Barcelona, Sydney, Auckland - have their economies hobbled by the growing unaffordability of housing in these places. And its true that the politicised planning system - government telling people what they can and cannot do with their property - is too often captured by these NIMBYs. But there's a second bunch of people who are just as important, especially where the setting of national policy is concerned. Let's call them "urban snobs". Here's one of them quoted by Joel Kotkin:
“The suburbs are about boredom, and obviously some people like being bored and plain and predictable, I’m happy for them,” snarks Elizabeth Farrelly, urban and architecture critic for the Sydney Morning Herald. “Even if their suburbs are destroying the world.”
What we're told we need is high rise living, a sort of urban wonderment of pokey little flats inhabited by the childless young (and increasingly not-so-young). Except for the fact that, contrary to the snobs argument, cities are not an environmental blessing:
Suburban detached houses, according to one Australian study, use less energy per capita than those of inner-city urbanites. California, the hotbed of climate lunacy and forced densification, has reduced its greenhouse gases between 2007 and 2016 at a rate 40th per capita among the 50 states. It has succeeded, however, in driving up energy and housing prices well above the rest of the country; the world capital of the elite tech economy also suffers the highest cost adjusted poverty rate in the nation.
So we have a rootless, childless, kidult population flitting around the big city doing achingly exciting jobs in tech or politics or law and pretending that this is the good life, far better than suburbia's boring, plain and predictable world. We will soon reach a point of confrontation between suburbia and the big city as those suburbs realise they have political power and can challenge the anti-car, anti-family agenda of the urban snobs.


Wednesday, 13 November 2019

On UnHerd - my argument that the North should stop trying to be like London.

Let's turn off the Northern Powerhouse...

Most of the North is not urban, is not in a state of seemingly terminal decline and is not remotely desolate except in a “Cathy running across the moor shouting Heathcliffe” way. Speak to a Northerner about the North, and they will talk about moors and mountains, lakes and rivers, market towns and stately homes, woods and rolling acres.

Yet our blinkered economic development approach completely ignores this in favour of linking together five or six city centres with speedy trains and filling those centres with shiny offices.

It’s time to turn all this on its head. Leave behind those dreams of past industrial might and talk, instead, about what makes the North special. Let’s talk about what makes it unique: its environment.
 You can read the whole thing over at UnHerd.


Monday, 11 November 2019

In which I 'splain the game of intersectional top trumps

 I was going to "whitesplain" Islamophobia, "mansplain" misogyny and "straightsplain" (is this a word yet?) gay rights. But, for all the entertainment value of this, I suspect it would be more of an indulgence than a contribution to our understanding as to why the terms - which are simple tools used in argument to close down a debate by excluding someone - are a problem. "As a white man you can't..." is a common rhetorical gambit in social media (and increasingly in real live debate) and assumes that, in the matter of 'feelz', you cannot begin to understand the "lived experience" of the identity group in question unless you're from that group.

As writer James Bloodworth observes, this obsession with "language-policing and virtue-signalling, rather than purpose" represents the transformation of 'the left' into a hobby rather than a movement for social and economic change. We are also seeing, despite all the fact checking and talk of evidence-based policy, a time when feelings, empathy and emotions (or more accurately statements of these things - "I'm upset", "that is offensive", "you can't understand how...") dominate, all wrapped up into the idea of "lived experience". Instead of collecting data about the impact of single parenthood, analysing it and developing policy responses, we are encouraged to listen to stories and statements of feelings, to bow to the "lived experience" of those people.

There is a limit to all this and Bloodworth spots it:
Lived experience is clearly important, but it is not everything — as most middle-class Lefties are apt to remember when they encounter a white British person who doesn’t like immigration because of the social effects it has had on their hometown.
Here we have a classic example of how the idea of identity politics becomes a game of top trumps rather than a valid tool for sociological analysis. The poor, old white bloke nursing a pint in Wetherspoons while complaining about how "they" have spoiled his town is describing his lived experience with the same amount of emotion and story as the Somali kid over the road. We might call that bloke 'racist', 'gammon' or 'boomer' but does it make sense to include a man barely scraping by on a crappy pension in the idea of "white privilege"?

We see repeated examples of these intersectional conflicts - the Asian mums complaining about their kids being given sex education that talks about homosexuality, young white girls in care being given less priority than their non-white abusers and the whole crazy Trans vs TERF thing. Everywhere we look we see that this idea of identity as the driver of politics and policy crashing into the reality - black rappers sing homophobic lyrics, Asian taxi drivers make racist jokes about Africans, gay women say gender fluidity denies their identity as lesbians.

Policy-makers, like marketers, love a good typology, something that puts people into conveniently labelled little boxes. This makes the job a lot easier - the marketer can target by ACORN codes and the policy-maker can design policies for the contents - gay, straight, white, black, northern, coastal, old, young - of all their little boxes. Each policy has internal coherence and reflects the 'lived experience' of the particular box's contents but completely ignores that people are in multiple boxes and the policies responding to Box A may be a problem for the people in Box B and especially challenging for someone who is in both of these boxes.

So we turn it into a game of top trumps meaning that we give (usually for specious virtue-signalling reasons) greater priority to some boxes. All this means that somewhere there's a loser and, as we're coming to realise, the loser is probably that bloke with the pint in Wetherspoons. And while he's pretty sanguine most of the time, he really doesn't consider himself privileged. Nor, when he looks at his perfectly ordinary working class family, does he consider them privileged. Yet our game of top trumps means that the black daughter of a Nigerian millionaire who went to Roedean and Oxford then took a great job with an elite publishing company and lives in an awesome Chelsea flat is less privileged than a white man earning ten pounds an hour driving a fork-lift in a warehouse and living in a Wakefield council house.

We give more attention to whether a rich female TV presenter is paid more or less than a rich male TV presenter than we do to vulnerable white girls getting groomed, abused and raped. Government spent loads of time and money on a national enquiry into the gender pay gap accompanied by TV shows, discussions and horror stories of how a woman in media is only paid £400,000 while some bloke gets £600,000. We even got a new law. Meanwhile, we're still waiting for a full enquiry into why councils, health authorities and the police ignored the grooming, rape and abuse of vulnerable white girls.

I'm not sure where we end up with this approach to policy other than with that game of top trumps, a game that is won by people placing themselves in the most advantageous boxes. The contest for attention, cries of prejudice and wrong-doing, will be won by the articulate middle class not by more tongue-tied folk like that bloke with the pint in Wetherspoons. The debate will be about the careers of successful, university-educated people rather than how Tyler with two GCSEs and a criminal record gets into a world that isn't dominated by insecure jobs, petty crime, cheap lager and weed. Every now and again, a journalist will stray into Tyler's world (or the closely related world of our friend in Wetherspoons) and those smart, university-educated folk will be shocked for a minute or two before returning to more important things like the gender pay gap, why the media are horrid to Meghan and letting men use ladies loos.


Saturday, 9 November 2019

NIMBYs are destroying California. They'll do the same to London if we don't stop them.

California, the golden land of promise, blessed by sunshine, fertility and the fruits of liberty. It's in a mess, you might even say dying. For the first time in its history the Golden State has more people leaving than arriving. And the reasons? As Jimmy McMillan once said "the rent's too damned high". California has an acute, almost terminal, housing problem:
The median price for a house now tops $600,000, more than twice the national level. The state has four of the country’s five most expensive residential markets—Silicon Valley, San Francisco, Orange County and San Diego. (Los Angeles is seventh.) The poverty rate, when adjusted for the cost of living, is the worst in the nation. California accounts for 12% of the U.S. population, but a quarter of its homeless population.
Four out of ten Californians pay more than 30% of their income on rent or mortgage, the worst in the USA. And the reason is pretty simple. Californians have voted, agitated, campaigned, petitioned and marched against building new homes - again and again. NIMBYs are destroying California.

This being America, the finger is pointed at the zoning system used by town planners over there and, specifically, zoning only for single family homes. Worse than this, these zones don't just say "you can only build single detached homes here" they also dictate the size of individual plots. And in places where agricultural land sells for $1m per acre, limiting density to at low as 10 homes per acre makes for expensive homes. But it's not just this rather crazy system but that it is made worse by having 90% of the land in the state excluded from development and by having a set of NIMBY-inspired environmental, heritage and ecological policies the main effect of which is to prevent development.

Bob Tilman has spent best part of six years trying to get permission to redevelop his laudromat in San Francisco into an apartment block. There's still no permission and opponents - yes opponents of housing is a city with a huge crisis - have used political pressure, environmental regulations and heritage rules to try and prevent the scheme. Elsewhere in the city the same anti-housing campaigners have stopped the development of a homeless shelter.

We can, from the comfort of civilised England, smile and laugh at California's problems. We can point at the gross hypocrisy of progressive, left-of-centre politicians working with wealthy residents to stop affordable housing. We can even boggle as politicians elected on supposedly pro-housing platforms then spend half their campaigning on stopping housing. But we need to pause for a minute and consider whether, in our 'world city' the same problems are brewing.

Spend even a little bit of time looking into London's housing issues and you'll quickly find all the same conditions we see in California. Not just rising homelessness, sofa-surfing and exploitative, often illegal rentals, but politicians (commonly those progressive left-of-centre politicians like we see in California) saying that the impossible is possible, that we can meet housing need in a growing city without making a lot more land available for housing. There are nice warm words about 'brownfield' sites, talk of increased density and affordable housing provisions, but when the chance comes to get one of those dense development with lots of affordable housing, reasons are quickly found to refuse the development. "It's too tall". "What about heritage". "Ooo Kew Gardens".

This pattern is repeated everywhere as council planning committees indulge loud NIMBY lobbies by drawing up the most restrictive local plan possible with the least amount of housing land allocated they can get away with. And then those same Councils lobby for billions in public money to "solve the housing crisis" - the housing crisis their planning decisions have contributed to. Just about every home counties planning authority is squirming about trying to reduce the self-evident need for them to play a bigger part in meeting the housing demand that a massively successful London brings.

The planning system has a sclerotic local plan process, is obsessed with protecting the 'green belt' at all cost, and is vulnerable to loud, organised anti-housing minorities. We should look at California and take the warning - get the system changed, allow more housing development and put the NIMBYs back in the box. Most people support more housing for families, more affordable housing and a fairer planning system, it's time politicians - nationally and locally - had the balls to face down the anti-housing campaigners and get a nation where the rent's not too damned high.


Tuesday, 5 November 2019

Do we need to invest more time, thought and money on making communities work?

 The American Enterprise Institute (AEI) has a survey on community and society - "Social capital, civic health, and quality of life in the United States". One of the researchers Samuel Abrams comments on some of their findings:
...when Americans live near a variety of public places and spaces – from cafes and bars to shopping areas and parks, playgrounds, or beaches – trust in others and sense of community increases, feelings of loneliness and isolation decline, and faith is local government is higher than in areas with fewer communal amenities. The data also reveals that these amenities can be regularly found throughout most residential spatial forms to varying degrees around the country from inner cities to small towns and suburbs; only rural areas tend to lack close proximity to these amenities en masse.
This is not simply about public sector provision but a wide variety of places where people meet and interact - " stores; restaurants, bars, or coffee shops; gyms or fitness centers; movie theaters, bowling alleys, or other entertainment venues; parks or recreation centers; and community centers or libraries."

Abrams focuses on voter turnout in local elections (and how dog owners are more community minded - I guess we'd better not mention the poo though) but at the core of this concern is the idea of trust with the research finding that people "...derive a sense of community from their friends, neighborhoods, and hometowns more than their ideology or ethnic identity. Regular interaction with friends and neighbors produces a strong sense of community."

Put simply, community matters. And this, a discovery that shouldn't surprise anyone, is something that too often takes a secondary place in public policy around crime, economy, health and welfare. All these policy areas run along separate lines with separate groups of experts many of whom see the issue as being about the actions of individuals or small groups of individuals.

What this research suggests is that having people living in identifiable, safe neighbourhoods should be a primary aim of public policy. And, while this chimes with some aspects of city-oriented 'New Urbanism', it also suggests that we should focus a little less on the economics of agglomeration and a little more on the sociology of neighbourhoods. We can agree about 'walkability', about the value of main street, and about how private amenities are as significant - perhaps more so - as public amenities, but not about the impact of city living on transience, loss of community and social isolation. It maybe shouldn't matter that in Manhattan and Inner West London the most common 'family structure' is the single person but perhaps this is an indicator of that social atomisation.

There is, in much of today's urban planning, not merely a disdain for suburbs (despite AEI's research showing suburbia is where there are the most high amenity neighbourhoods) but a somewhat inhuman utilitarianism focused on cramming the highest numbers of 'worker units' in the smallest space. There is a kick-back on all this with the idea that we can develop much more densely without losing the idea of houses or streets - the inner urban world doesn't have to crowded anonymity - but we still see suburban development dismissed sneeringly as sprawl.

At the same time the legacy of Ebeneezer Howard continues with the idea that the answer is new communities - 'garden cities' - are the answer rather than the modest extension of exiting suburbs, towns and villages that are already high amenity places. It's also why we should worry about the decline in our high streets, should stress the value of community centres and village halls, and should consider - for all their sometimes pettiness and nosy-parkering - things like Parish Councils and community associations as vital to a strong neighbourhood. And perhaps, when we're considering splashing public money on railways or huge new hospitals, we should ask whether putting some of that money into community amenities might just be better for society and people's well-being?

Thursday, 31 October 2019

Is play meaningful? A comment on the purposeful life.

I blame St Paul:
When I was a child, I spoke as a child, I understood as a child, I thought as a child; but when I became a man, I put away childish things.
Those childish things are mostly about play, about the enjoyable but idle wasting of time with mere fun. And, in the stern puritan world of today, such things are not meaningful, play is not meaningful. Adults should be doing purposeful things that 'contribute' not frivolous fripperies, not leisure and pleasure.

Here's US "medical ethicist" (I've no idea either) and architect of 'Obamacare', Ezekiel Emmanuel:
These people who live a vigorous life to 70, 80, 90 years of age—when I look at what those people “do,” almost all of it is what I classify as play. It’s not meaningful work. They’re riding motorcycles; they’re hiking. Which can all have value—don’t get me wrong. But if it’s the main thing in your life? Ummm, that’s not probably a meaningful life.
This contains all the essential elements of the puritan - we live to work, to do purposeful and meaningful things. This is what matters not riding a motorbike or hiking the Sierras. Play is not what grown ups should do, we put away those childish things and did serious, sensible grown up projects, the things that constitute a meaningful life.

I retired this year because I'd had enough of what I was doing and am fortunate to be in a financial situation allowing me to do so. On Emmanuel's assessment, I'm no longer living a meaningful life. I've picked up those childish things again - going for walks, travelling to new places, playing Dungeons & Dragons, enjoying the place I live and time with friends and neighbours. There's a point when you realise that nothing much you do actually matters and it is strangely liberating.

Emmanuel's observation is his view as to what constitutes a meaningful life (or rather, since he doesn't say what his meaningful life contains, what doesn't constitute a meaningful life and the interviewer makes no attempt to extract an answer that might help). But I don't see playing games, enjoying the beauty of the world, spending time with family and friends as thing without meaning. In fact, compared to most folk's routine job, these are far more important and contain more meaning.

All this reflects the obsession with productivity as the sole measure of purpose. We're told that we're not productive enough and that this won't do at all, yet we're happier spending leisure time than we are with the drudge of our work. So, yes (and not for the first time) St Paul is wrong, or at least misunderstood. There is as much purpose in consumption, in the pleasures of life as there is in those dry tasks that puritans like Emmanuel consider meaningful.


Monday, 21 October 2019

Is social conservatism essential for a strong society?

The more you look at the actual sociological data (rather than the dominant ideological clap-trap) the more it seems that social conservatism is the essential glue needed for that strong, stable society we crave for. Maybe Harinam & Henderson are selective in their data for this article but it makes a compelling case.

Go to church.
But why do some areas exhibit higher rates of upward mobility than others? For Carney, social capital is the key. Places with more civic activity, regardless of income, have more upward mobility. In fact, Chetty, calculating an area’s “social capital” score, found a strong correlation between civic activity and upward mobility, with religiosity (e.g. going to church) leading the way. Both white working-class and black inner-city neighbourhoods lack the civic institutions that allow for upward mobility. Furthermore, research suggests that a 15% increase in the proportion of people who think others are trustworthy raises income per person by 1%.
Take personal responsibility and follow the 'success sequence'- "graduate from high school, work full-time, and not have children outside of marriage"
According to Haskins and Sawhill, individuals in families that adhered to the success sequence had a 98 percent chance of escaping poverty. By contrast, 76 percent of those that did not adhere to any of these norms were poor. In a 2003 analysis of census data, the authors demonstrated that had the poor followed the success sequence, the U.S. poverty rate would have fallen by more than 70 percent.
Support the family and marriage
Whereas 8 percent of children born to married parents end up in poverty as adults, 27 percent of children born to unmarried parents live as impoverished adults. According to a study by social scientists Robert Lerman, Joseph Price, and Brad Wilcox, “Youths who grow up with both biological parents earn more income, work more hours each week, and are more likely to be married themselves as adults, compared to children raised in single-parent families.”
The authors report that not only does controlling for family make-up pretty much eliminate differences between races but that the single best thing to reduce social pathologies like depression, alcoholism, suicide, IV drug use, and domestic violence is to cut the rates of child abuse. And child abuse is dramatically higher where children are born outside marriage.

It's one article and I'm sure there's plenty to question but it matches the work on child and young people of Robert Putnam as well as robust evidence on how social stability benefits the less well off far more than it does us well-connected middle-class folk. What is very clear, however, is that the collapse in traditional families sits right at the heart of the problems we see in inner-city communities. And it's no surprise that, for these communities, the people who look to escape a world of poverty, violence and drugs turn to the stability of the church as pretty much the sole wholesome thing on offer.

I am mixed on the matter of social conservatism given its association with anti-gay messages and a traditional, essentially subservient role for women. But the argument here is compelling - finishing school, getting a job and keeping a job, getting married and staying married is still the best route out of poverty. Our social policies should, therefore, focus on supporting these outcomes - well-funded schools with good discipline and a focus on outcomes, real support for people in work aimed at keeping them in work and a substantive and genuine commitment to reward marriage.